Physical Energy by G F Watts

G F Watts and plaster model of Physical Energy

Physical Energy is a monumental equestrian sculpture that has been cast on four separate occasions. Each bronze was made from this plaster model, which Watts began to work on in the early 1880s. He continued to develop the bold and angular design up until his death on 1 July 1904. Intended as a gift to the nation, Physical Energy represents Watts’s lifelong commitment to creating ambitious, large-scale art for the public.

Claiming to ‘paint ideas, not things’, Watts would use a unique symbolic language in his painting and sculpture. Physical Energy is an allegorical subject. Rather than a representation of a specific horse and rider, this sculpture symbolises a broader idea. It was intended to express “man as he ought to be – a part of creation, of cosmos in fact, his great limbs to be akin to the rocks and to the roots, and his head to be the sun”.

Physical Energy has assumed a range of different meanings, both within and after the artist’s lifetime. While initially conceived as an allegorical work, the sculpture’s meaning has been marked by being closely tied to the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), the imperialist financier and statemen central to British expansion of Southern Africa. The sculpture has also been used as a logo for the Labour publishing company in the 1920s, and a 1950s food brand.

At Watts Gallery, ever since the plaster model was first installed in the Sculpture Gallery in 1907, Physical Energy has symbolised the artist's lifelong commitment to create ambitious, large-scale art for the nation. It has also presided over Watts Gallery as the weathervane on the gallery roof.

Plans are underway to display the fourth bronze at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village. In preparation for the installation of the cast, the organisation is working in consultation with all our communities to critically re-examine the sculpture’s creative process, meaning and significance both historically and today.

The plaster model

Cast 1 (1904)

Cast 2 (1907)

Cast 3 (1959)

Cast 4 (2017)

The Physical Energy project